Remembering Leonard

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89

Hockey Night in Canada began its broadcast last Saturday with “Dance Me to the End of Love.” A few hours later, Saturday Night Live began with “Hallelujah.” Keith Urban sang “Hallelujah” at a concert after the news broke. Coldplay performed “Suzanne.” J.K. Rowling tweeted his lyrics. So did Lin-Manuel Miranda. Tributes poured in from artists ranging from Elton John to Lana Del Rey, from Peter Gabriel to Justin Timberlake, from Bette Midler to Beth Orton to Beck. Nick Cave called him “the greatest songwriter of them all.”

Leonard Cohen, BA’55, DLitt’92, belonged to the world – but before he belonged to the world, he belonged to us. He was one of us. We knew where his house was. We knew where he liked to have breakfast when he was in town. An international celebrity, he strolled along the Main without pretense, offering a warm smile and a tip of his cap to anyone who recognized him. Frustrated journalists would try to arrange for interviews with him for years without success, but if you were in the right place on the right day at the right time, you might find yourself sharing a friendly chat with him. Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, BA’04, wrote, “Seeing Leonard Cohen walking on St Laurent Street when I was 21 was enough to make me feel like I had a home.”

New York, Hydra, Los Angeles – they all played a huge role in his life. But Montreal was deep in his bones. “The city was his in a way that cities are rarely anyone’s,” noted the Giller Prize-winning novelist Sean Michaels, BA’04.

Leonard Cohen (first row, second from left) and
other members of the McGill Debating Union in 1955.

McGill was in his bones too. Leonard Cohen would have been special no matter what school he attended, but it’s hard to think of a better university to prepare someone for the task of being Leonard Cohen than McGill in the mid-fifties. A young man with a gift for words and an interest in poetry and fiction had access to a murderer’s row of literary talent amongst the University’s teaching staff – Louis Dudek, BA’39, Irving Layton, BSc(Agr)’39, MA’46, Hugh MacLennan and F.R. Scott, BCL’27, LLD’67.

Dudek was an instrumental mentor, playing a major role in the publication of Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies. Cohen biographer Ira Nadel wrote that a course with MacLennan instilled in Cohen a deep appreciation for the gifts of James Joyce. But it was the audacious, rough-and-tumble Layton who had the greatest influence on the dapper young poet. Layton’s vibrant and sexually charged work made a lasting impact. “I taught him how to dress; he taught me how to live forever,” Cohen famously remarked.

According to another Cohen biographer, Sylvie Simmons, Cohen had another important outlet for his unique talents – the McGill Debating Union. “He shone in debate. He had a natural flair, as well as a taste, for using language with precision.” In his final year, he was the group’s president.

After McGill, Cohen moved on to New York, where he met the likes of Judy Collins, Nico and Lou Reed. He was the author of award-winning poetry and two novels, but he found that poems and works of fiction weren’t making him much money. Inspired by his musician friends, he turned to songwriting and performing. It wasn’t an entirely out-of-the-blue shift. He was part of a country and western trio called the Buckskin Boys while he was studying at McGill.

The rest of the story is familiar enough. There was the record company executive who decided against releasing one album, explaining, “Look, Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you’re any good.” The album that got turned down included “Dance Me to the End of Love” and “Hallelujah.”

There was the long list of filmmakers who adored his work and incorporated it into movies as wildly divergent as Natural Born Killers and Shrek.

There were the tales of Cohen’s meticulousness – how he would labour over songs for years until they were just right. “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often,” he mused.

There was his wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. “Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win Vocalist of the Year,” he remarked after accepting a Juno Award in 1992.

There was the widespread recognition of his achievements. Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The Prix du Québec. The Glenn Gould Prize. The Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. Five Juno Awards.

And there was the act of betrayal that spurred him to the soaring triumphs of his final years. A trusted former manager pilfered his life’s savings. The money he had put away for his children was gone. Millions of dollars had disappeared. He sued and won, but the money was still lost.

In his seventies, Cohen got back to work, releasing three critically acclaimed albums and embarking on a hugely successful concert tour. Cohen had struggled with paralyzing bouts of stage fright for much of his career, but his final world tour featured concerts that lasted for up to three hours, with a relaxed and playful Cohen at the full height of his powers. "We started this tour four years ago when I was 74, just a kid with a dream,” he told one audience in LA.

A Leonard Cohen only comes along once in a lifetime – if you’re lucky.

And we were.

McGill is establishing the Leonard Cohen Memorial Fund. Gifts to this fund will support endeavours that embody the spirit of his life. To donate, please click here.

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